Detroit’s Capitol Park: History lost in sterile design

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Addressing the urban blight of Detroit raises so many issues that it’s probably best left for someone’s thesis. Although I’m sure the city has been trying everything it can to bring people back to its urban core for quite some time, the last decade or so has given room for some serious redevelopment, and for the purpose of this article, specifically Capitol Park. I’ve searched (for about an hour or so) but can’t seem to find the designers of the park’s 2009 redevelopment. The now completed project doesn’t really rile up anger or outrage, but more of a saddened disappointment. Whoever designed it, in my opinion, missed the mark and lost a great opportunity to create a thriving urban space. Ok, granted nothing in Detroit is thriving at the moment, but there are people, there will be more people in the future, and then you could use “thriving”. But, even without a large population a good park would get used.

If you click through the slide show to see Capitol Park’s evolution over the last century (and then some), you can see that what is there now looks a lot better than what was created in the 50’s. But, I have two issues about the current design: 1. It may look nice but it is not inviting and will not get used (often); and 2. The current design doesn’t reflect (minus the statue) the sites historical and cultural past.

Jack Dempsey, in the January issue of Michigan History, compares the importance of Capitol Park to Michigan with the importance of Independence National Park to the United States. Independence Park in Philadelphia is the site where “the dream of a free country of independent citizens” became actuality and is hallowed ground for our nation. Capitol Park of Detroit is the site of the first capitol, grave of the first governor (Thomson Mason, the youngest in American history at 25 years old), where “escapees of human bondage found shelter and first glimpsed freedom,” and where Michigan assumed its station in the Union of American States.

At half an acre, Capitol Park is one of the smallest public spaces in Detroit. After the capitol was moved, the building became a public library and Detroit’s first high school. In 1850, Finney Hotel and Horse Barn opened across the street from the old capitol building and for a decade served as a “passenger depot” for the Underground Railroad. In January 1893, the old capitol burned down. Detroit Free Press proposed the idea of turning the site into a green space. With the statue of Governor Mason marking his grave Capitol Park became a pocket park and breath of fresh air for bustling Detroit. By 1950, with the pressure of a heavy population and the influence of Urban Design Theory, Capitol Park was converted to a public transit center. Then Detroit started to steadily lose population and the park became a hub for drug dealers.

The new redevelopments have pushed the “shadiness” out of Capitol Park, but that’s about the only improvement. Parks have the potential to further redevelopment and economic interests, but only when done right. Several Detroitians have vocalized on the World Wide Web their lack luster response; “The place is mostly empty except for the area under the large tree at the south end of the park — the only truly people-friendly spot. The rest is mostly concrete.” In a city covered with concrete you think they’d want to seize the opportunity of balancing the vegetation to concrete ratio. I also think they should have capitalized on the park being a destination site. The history alone would be enough to attract people, but it definitely wasn’t designed like one. What do you think? The new redevelopment has improved safety but did they miss an opportunity to create something great and special not only for Detroit but for Michigan?


Landmark of Liberty: Detroit’s Capitol Park – Jack Dempsey


Detroit Transit History

Faded Detroit



  1. Granted the trees are immature, there is so much concrete in this park. Perhaps one of the constraints was that there needs to be plenty of walking leeway, but this can be allowed in other ways. I see the potential for this park as being a green oasis in a sea of concrete. Instead it on adds to the non-porous bush which the city is painted by.

    Detroit (at its current state) is like a wilderness. A quieter, decaying, forest of old factories and high rises. I dont see this as a negative trait, rather a mode of allow more green to creep within the inner city limits. Perhaps Detroit can even be a caveat for coming trend of rejuvenation of inner cities and abandonment of the drudgery suburbs!

  2. I agree with being able to utilize Detroit’s emptiness as a positive trait. It’s a potential for more greenspace. Cleveland is in a similar situation, but they are turning their vacant lots into gardens, while Detroit is turning its parks into concrete islands.

    I haven’t seen any goal statements for Detroit’s development, but it seems that they are very focused on revitalizing the economy (as they should be), but missed the fact that businesses go where there are people, and people are attracted to greenspaces. If you green it, they will come.

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